Op-Ed: College Students Shouldn’t Have to Worry About Housing

On May 4, 2022, CalMatters published this Op-Ed from Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine, co-chairs of the California Coalition for Public Higher Education:

Far too often, students at California’s public colleges and universities have had to sleep in their cars or couch surf in their friends’ apartments because they couldn’t afford permanent housing. It’s time to increase funding and remove obstacles so that the state public higher education system can create the housing students need.

One in 20 University of California students, one in 10 California State University students and one in five California Community Colleges students have reported they were homeless at some point during the academic year. Even more students reported sleeping on a sofa, in a hotel or outdoors because they lacked permanent housing. Most CSU and CCC students now pay more for housing than tuition, and COVID-19 has driven up those costs, according to one recent survey.

The lack of affordable campus housing can harm our young people’s educational opportunities and, ultimately, the state’s economic future.

In the past, public colleges and universities have built new housing with revenue bonds, which are repaid with students’ housing payments. But it’s difficult to keep student housing costs affordable while repaying these bonds.

Assembly Bill 1602 by Assembly member Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, would create a $5 billion fund that would lend money interest-free to public colleges and universities to help construct an estimated 25,000 additional beds that would be rented to students at below-market prices.

The fund would build on the Higher Education Student Housing Grant Program approved last year to award one-time grants of up to $2 billion over three years for campus housing. The Legislature should approve the first $480 million in grants proposed to create affordable housing for 3,545 students at UCLA, UC San Diego, San Francisco State, San Diego State and five community colleges: College of the Siskiyous, Fresno City, Imperial Valley, Sierra and Ventura colleges.

Even with increased funding, creating new campus housing faces challenges under the California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA was the basis for the state Supreme Court’s recent decision to block enrollment increases at UC Berkeley. The Legislature and governor acted quickly to let students enroll. They also should move forward on Senate Bill 886, introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.

SB 886 would streamline and accelerate student and faculty housing production by exempting on-campus housing built by UC, CSU and CCC from CEQA. Projects would still have to meet state environmental standards but would not be subject to the CEQA lawsuits that have blocked or stalled college and university plans in the past.

Creating more affordable campus housing will bolster the state’s economy. Research shows that students living on campus are more likely to have academic success and complete their education. When they complete their education, they earn about two times the amount high school graduates do and have lower unemployment rates, higher labor force participation and better job quality.

In recognition of this, the governor and state policymakers have called for increased in-state enrollment at public colleges and universities. But campuses may struggle to meet demand without increased housing.

CSU reported that 8,700 students were on housing waitlists at 13 of its 23 campuses in the fall, and UC reported more than 7,500 students on waitlists at eight of its nine campuses. With its recent announcement, UCLA stands out as the first — and unfortunately the only — UC campus to guarantee housing for four years to first-year students and two years for transfer students.

CCC, the nation’s largest higher education system, has dormitories at only 11 of its 116 campuses — even though demand for affordable housing is high among their students, many of whom are lower-income and often juggling jobs, family obligations and their studies.

Providing affordable housing so students can thrive is essential to ensuring their success, and their success is essential to the continued prosperity of the Golden State.

Dick Ackerman, Fullerton

Mel Levine, Pacific Palisades

Ackerman is a former Republican leader of the California Senate; Levine is a former Democratic member of Congress. They co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education.